People often ask where the French get their reputation for being so rude. And then other people indignantly reply, “I was in France just last month, and they are not rude at all!” Which is true but does not answer the question.
To be fair, the rumor has existed since the Romans conquered Gaul and turned Lutèce into a medical resort town centuries ago, but I believe that I have rooted out one of the primary sources of the rumor: the Parisian waiter.
Before you get excited, I know that Parisian waiters are not rude. Well, there are some that are, but no more so than elsewhere on the planet. And frankly I prefer a savory Gallic tongue-lashing to having someone spit in my soup. But being a waiter in Paris is a profession, and there are a few different customs and styles that seem to set tongues wagging Stateside.
Because they are the professionals and you are merely the client, waiters assume that you rely on their expertise. So when you go to a restaurant and request salmon, with the pepper sauce that is on the menu but that is destined for the steak, the waiter may say non! He is sure that these flavors do not mix well, and he feels responsible for your enjoying your meal. Which can be frustrating. Especially if you know that you love this dish, and there ends up being a 20-minute argument between the waiter and your date.
But it can also be an education, like the time a girlfriend and I ordered white wine with the pressed duck at La Tour d’Argent. The sommelier refused to participate in such a crime. We were students, and it was painfully obvious that we’d starved ourselves for months to afford this meal, so he offered to comp us a more expensive bottle of red, which was a revelation for two Californians who had thought zinfandel was something chic. At the end of the meal, our sommelier arrived with two sheepskin vests and an invitation to follow him down into the historic cellars, where we saw treasures that included an Armagnac from the Napoleonic era.
Once your order has been accepted, problems arise, as those used to quick service get impatient. But the food needs to be prepared, and usually the table is yours for the afternoon or evening, so the waiter can’t even imagine that you are feeling rushed. If you are in a hurry, there is the task of catching his eye (the profession is mostly male in France), which is everywhere except on you. This makes sense when you stop to count the number of tables he is working and realize that it is twice the amount you’d expect. In France waiters are paid a living wage and restaurants hire considerably less staff, so you are not being ignored. His hands are full. Literally.
The final straw comes when you are ready to leave but have not yet received the check. Is he never going to bring the bill? Well, no, not if he is polite. In France it is considered rude to deliver the bill prior to the diner’s request, as this could make the guest feel rushed and be perceived as an invitation to leave. So you are going to have to ask for that bill. Which arrives with the service charge already included, 15 percent off the bat. You have no say in the matter, regardless of the service, and that gets some visitors angry. Really angry. So angry that they return home and let everyone know that France is horrible and the Parisians are RUDE!
Well, not particularly. And now that you’ve read this piece, you can dish out some rumors of your own.